Former Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer,
Hazleton Laboratories Corporation
Former President, Seattle School Board
As head of Hazleton, which he turned into the largest independent contract laboratory in the world, Don Nielsen was troubled by the poor skills he often saw in his company's entry-level hires. When he retired in 1992, he decided to do something about it by running for the Seattle school board. "If you want to change public education," he says, "you have to get inside the system."
When he retired at 54, Don Nielsen did something perhaps unexpected of the CEO of the world's largest independent biomedical research and testing company. He set off on a two-year "odyssey" around the United States to try to figure out what was wrong with this country's public education system. Then he ran for the school board in his hometown of Seattle to see if he could be part of the solution.
These interests seem anything but dichotomous to Nielsen, whose passionate interest in education extends back to 1969, when he and his business partner, Kirby Cramer (68th AMP, 1974), were looking to purchase their first company. "The two areas of society I thought were broken were education and medicine," Nielsen recalls. "But education seemed too big a nut to crack."
Settling on medicine, Nielsen and Cramer pored over the Seattle phone book to find a research and development company they could buy and run. The only possibility was a one-man operation that built self-cleaning rat cages for psychology labs. Learning that pharmaceutical companies use large quantities of rats, they negotiated a deal with him and over the next few months also executed a roll-up strategy that eventually made them the largest U.S. manufacturer of cages.
In 1971, the two entrepreneurs decided to raise money to purchase Hazleton Laboratories Corporation, a struggling research concern in Virginia. Within six weeks, the company was making money thanks to a prescription of cost-cutting, tough performance evaluations, and some intense morale-building efforts.
On behalf of a long list of clients such as Genentech, Merck, and Procter & Gamble, Hazleton tested concepts and compounds and was deeply involved in the development of everything from contact lenses to chemotherapy drugs. Over the next two decades, Nielsen, who specialized in operations, and Cramer, who reveled in the art of the deal, replicated the Hazleton model, acquiring twenty companies and amalgamating the industry to create a global capability for the world's pharmaceutical makers.
In 1987, with the industry for all intents and purposes consolidated, the two partners sold Hazleton to Corning Glass Works, which asked Nielsen to remain as chairman and CEO for five more years. He agreed and doubled the size of the company during that time. With revenues of $165 million and 2,500 employees in five countries on three continents, Hazleton was central to Corning's aggressive move into laboratory services.
With the end of his tenure approaching, Nielsen looked ahead to his next venture. Concerned by the poor reading, writing, and quantitative skills of many of Hazleton's entry-level employees, he was still intrigued with the possibility of improving public schools.
Nielsen himself was no stranger to public education. The son of Danish immigrants, he attended nine different schools in his first nine years as a student before settling in at Seattle's Ballard High School. After a coach told him that he was too small to play football, he turned instead to student government. The experience served him well when he was later elected student body president at the University of Washington. During his senior year, a faculty advisor encouraged him to apply to Harvard Business School, which Nielsen describes as a "life-changing experience" that boosted his confidence and made him an entrepreneur.
Determined to help others achieve their academic goals, Nielsen visited more than 100 schools in nineteen states, talking with everyone from governors to the U.S. Secretary of Education. He asked each person he met the same question: What is the mission of a school? "I got a variety of answers, which told me a lot in and of itself," he says. Meanwhile, Nielsen developed his own definition: "The mission of a school is to serve as the primary partner, with parents, in the total development of a child into a responsible citizen."
Eager to implement his theories, Nielsen moved his family back to Seattle, where he won an open seat on the school board. In time, he convinced his colleagues that the only way to develop great schools was to find a great leader. As a result, the board hired John Stanford, a retired U.S. Army major general with a long list of credentials but no track record in education, as superintendent.
In partnership with the charismatic Stanford, Nielsen worked to bring about a "transformation"—a word he much prefers over "reform." In a series of controversial moves, the school board eliminated mandatory busing and instituted neighborhood choice in an effort to give parents—or "customers," as Nielsen likes to call them—a greater say in their child's schooling. It also decentralized both decision-making and budgeting to empower principals. "Before that, principals had no authority over money, staff, or curriculum, but they were held accountable for how their schools performed," Nielsen says.
After stepping down from the board in 2001, Nielsen turned to private investing. His first foray involved founding and funding TeachFirst, a company that uses the Internet to jump-start new teachers by sharing lesson plans and classroom videos of some of the country's best educators.
Working from his home overlooking Seattle's Elliott Bay, Nielsen is now writing a book espousing some of his more radical thoughts on education, including the elimination of both age-based grade placement and grade-based performance assessment. The stakes are high, he asserts. "This democracy depends on an educated electorate, and to ensure that, we need to radically improve our schools."